Opinionista Yonela Diko 19 March 2018

Political culture of BRICS is a concern

BRICS seems to be politically toxic, with no overwhelming economic benefits for members.

One of the bizarre reasons said to have been given by former president Jacob Zuma for wanting to stay on as president was so that he could introduce President Ramaphosa at the BRICS summit scheduled for the end of 2018 in the country. Zuma’s sentiments reflected a president who sees his person, and not the institution of the presidency and country, as the core component of his relationship with the BRICS countries, a strange phenomenon of personality and cult politics and the overblown megalominia of a monarch. One wonders where Zuma got that version of the presidency.

One, however, need only look at the BRICS countries, where fellow leaders see themselves as supreme or core leaders in their respective countries without whom there would never have been any development or civilisation or even air to breathe. Who would want such divine leaders to go or stand in their way.

Today’s Russia and China, the leading members of BRICS, are almost undefined outside the persons of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

This weekend, Putin was running for president for the umpteenth time, in a hush-hush election that clearly was meant to dislodge any contenders from having enough time to campaign and put up a proper fight, least of all those opposition leaders who have met their untimely demise in inexplicable ways.

On the other side, in China, Xi’s political thoughts have already been written into the party constitution, and the state constitution was amended to abolish term limits for the presidency. Xi has had a cult of personality constructed around himself, with books, cartoons, pop songs and even dance routines.

There was however a time when these BRICS countries had transformative moments which signalled new dawns, but the appetite for change soon waned.

One of the enduring pictures in my memory is that of OR Tambo, accompanied by the young Thabo Mbeki, sitting across Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991.

Not only does this picture show a Tambo who was at the pinnacle of world affairs but also at the heart of global change. Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) and his reorientation of Soviet strategic aims, contributed to the end of the Cold War. Under this programme, the role of the Communist Party in governing the state was removed from the constitution. He was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in 1989, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, and the Harvey Prize in 1992, as well as honorary doctorates from various universities.

Today’s Russia, the one we have been in a relationship with for the last two decades, under Vladimir Putin, is a far cry from Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost and is no longer considered a democracy by many experts. Putin has been president of the Russian Federation since 2000, with little stints of being prime minister in-between.

He is almost the polar opposite of Gorbachev. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has scored poorly in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and experienced democratic backsliding according to both the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index (including a record low 20/100 rating in the 2017 Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report, a number that has not been seen since the days of the Soviet Union). Unfortunately our relationship with today’s Russia has been characterised by declining trade and a rising personal relationship between our heads of states.

Xi Jinping has been president of China since 2013. Lines between party and state have become more blurred and lines between Jinping and China itself even more convoluted. China has a history of dynasties which led for centuries until they lost popularity with the people and another dynasty would emerge and follow the same path. The rise and fall of the great dynasties forms a thread that runs through Chinese history, almost from the beginning till the birth of modern China in 1949. This is the history of empires and “everything under heaven” leaders who were seen almost as divine and God-sent and were accepted as such.

China, with its over 5,000-year history, is one of the world’s four ancient civilisations. It can be divided into three phases including the ancient China era (from c. 1600-221 BC), the imperial era (221 BC-1912 AD), the republic of China era (1912-1949) and modern China (from 1949). Since 1972, when Chairman Mao welcomed American President Richard Nixon in Beijing, China almost embarked on its own glasnost process which was furthered under the rule of Deng Xiaoping (1978–1989).

The process of the opening of China has certainly been the hallmark of Xi Jinping’s prosperity as the leader of modern China. One would have expected however that since the opening started with Mao, then Deng and now Jinping, Jinping would finally realise that the modernisation process itself will continue irrespective of which leader is at the helm and therefore Jinping does not need to implant himself in the country’s constitution as the only true and supreme leader.

As for Brazil, the country has been crumbling over the period of its BRICS membership, bringing down its president and its former president and destroying the people’s trust in their government. There has been no visible evidence of the shifting dependency from America to BRICS. Brazil remains vulnerable then to all kinds of external forces and it’s not clear if BRICS has been a force for good or has exacerbated its problems.

India seems to have been the only country that has done well during the BRICS period; however, India’s thought leaders have insisted that the country has made some significant strides over the past few years with countries like Japan, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Much to the chagrin of China, Vietnamese hydrocarbon firm PetroVietnam has given India’s ONGC Videsh Limited a one-year extension to explore a disputed oil bloc located in the South China Sea.

Experts have further insisted that while it is true that there are numerous differences between India and the United States, the two countries strongly converge on issues contrary to Chinese interests — first and foremost being the South China Sea. This can also be seen in Latin America with Brazil, where India has begun to develop strong ties with countries in ways often unfavourable to Brazilian interests.

BRICS therefore seems to be politically toxic with no overwhelming economic benefits for each member.

Still, with a combined population of 2.5 billion and a GDP of $16-trillion, with better leadership and even economic benefits, this structure holds much potential. South Africa has an opportunity here to influence the political culture of this institution. DM

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